Monday, July 18, 2011
How to Be a Popular Teacher
As anyone who has ever worked in a language school or other educational institution will know, it is a fact of life that some teachers are more popular than others. Come to think of it, anyone who has ever been to school will know that! I remember from my own school days that there were huge differences in the way the teachers were regarded by pupils. Some were loved and respected, while others were despised and ridiculed. Of course, it is not the case that the most popular teachers are necessarily the best teachers, and teaching should never be a popularity contest, but it is a matter of common sense that a teacher who is popular (or at least, not unpopular) with his or her students will probably find it easier to be effective in the classroom.
Like most teachers, I would like to think that I am generally popular with my students. Having said that, I am reminded of a survey in Britain that found that almost 80% of drivers believe that they are better than average. I suspect that a similar result would be found if language teachers were asked to assess our own popularity! Leaving that aside for a moment, however, it is interesting to consider what it is about a teacher that makes him or her popular. In my case, for example, it would be nice to think that my students like me simply because I am a likeable person, but as I am not, I think that is probably quite unlikely! It would also be nice to think that they like me because of my wonderful teaching skills, but I don’t think I am any more popular now than I was when I first started out, and I most certainly could not have claimed to be a great teacher in the early stages of my career.
A few years ago, I found one answer to this question thanks to a director of studies at a language school where I was working for the summer. The director came to observe my lesson, and after the class, we sat down for a feedback session. As is normal, she started by giving me positive feedback. She pointed out that the students seemed to have really enjoyed my lesson, and she asked me if I knew why. I replied that I did not, so she told me:
“From the minute you walk into the classroom, it is quite obvious that there is nowhere you would rather be and nothing you would rather be doing.”
Put simply, I suppose she was saying that the students liked me because I liked them. For me, that was just my normal way of approaching a lesson, and I had always assumed that every teacher goes into the class in that frame of mind. Thinking about it afterwards, however, I realized that is probably not the case. Anyway, my first point is that students will enjoy being taught by you if they get the feeling that you enjoy teaching them. I think it is important for all of us to remind ourselves of that every time we step into the classroom.
The second thing I have noticed over the years is that students tend to like teachers who remember names. Actually, I think that it is difficult to overstress the importance of remembering the names of your students, or at least making it clear that you are making a serious effort to do so. I have met a lot of teachers who have said, “Oh, I’m no good at remembering names, so I don’t even try anymore.” I may be wrong, but I would be willing to bet that these teachers would be able to establish a much better rapport with their students if they took the time and trouble to learn their names, however difficult that might be.
Of course, one problem with trying to learn students’ names is that you will inevitably learn some before others. Another problem is that you will occasionally make mistakes. These are difficult problems, because it can be a bit embarrassing for both you and the students if you remember most people’s names but forget one or two, or if you call someone by the wrong name. For this reason, I always explain to my students when I have a new class that it will be easier for me to remember some of their names than others, and that this will probably be for reasons that have nothing to do with them as people. I point out, for example, that if anyone has the same name as a student in another class that I know well, or even the same name as one of my friends, it will be easier for me to remember them. In other words, whether I remember someone’s name or not may have more to do with my life history than their personality or appearance. I try to make it clear that I will remember everyone’s name eventually, but I stress that I will need their understanding and cooperation in order to help me do that.
The final point I would like to mention is one that Tamara wrote about a while back, and again, it is really simple: students appreciate teachers who take their job seriously. No reasonable student expects their teacher to know everything, but most people want and expect to be taught by someone who cares enough about their job to spend time and effort learning how to do it well. Having a reputation as a “fun” teacher can be a good thing, but it needs to be backed up by a professional approach to the bits of the job that might not be so glamorous and interesting.
So, those are my three tips for being a popular teacher: enjoy your work, learn your students’ names, and take your job seriously. I’m sure that most of you will not need me to point out such obvious things, but I would love to get a discussion going and find out what other people think about this topic.
Look forward to hearing your ideas.